County's hotline receives pleas for help

The phone rang once.

“Hi, my name is Ben of United Way Manasota 2-1-1. How can I help you?”

“We have no food,” the desperate mother said. “I have three children. I’m not working. My food stamps haven’t come in yet. Somebody said you could help.”

The phones to the social services help line serving Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties are ringing off the hook as the economic crisis deepens. These days Ben Kunkel, director of operations and communications, frequently is on call to help the seven information referral specialists who direct callers to local organizations that can help them.

“We are overwhelmed,” said Kunkel. “On Monday alone, we took over 300 calls before noon.”

Like the desperate mom, most of the callers have either been laid off or lost their job and have exhausted their resources. She was just one of 1,258 people who called the help line the week of Oct. 13-17.

United Way 2-1-1 maintains a database of services offered by more than 800 local agencies and 2,400 programs. The help-line’s mission: to connect callers with the right agency or program to meet their needs.

“I’ll do my best to help you,” Kunkel told the caller, “but first we need to get you into the system. Then we can refer you to a food pantry. We set up a referral system to make sure you go some place that has food.”

“I tried a church near my house that gives out food, but there was hardly anything in the bag,” the caller said. “It lasted only a couple of days.”

It was a familiar story to Kunkel.

“Food pantries are putting less in the bags because they have less food on the shelves,” he said. “That’s why we are using this referral system so food banks don’t get overwhelmed.“We can’t serve 100 percent of the people all of the time, but we have to make sure we increase the percentage that do get help by distributing the need through collaboration,” Kunkel said. “We want to make sure everybody gets food, but when people abuse the system, some people get left out and that’s the last thing we need in these tough times.”It’s not just requests for food that are swamping the hot line.

In September alone, staff handled 6,268 requests for help, an all-time monthly high, with calls for financial assistance hitting 2,428.

“September put us at capacity,” said Alberto Suarez, 2-1-1 director. “I even had to jump on the phones to help handle calls. I’ve been trying to keep morale high.”

But that’s a tall order in these tough times, Suarez admits. Few agencies in the social service network have enough resources to meet rising needs, and requests for utility and rental assistance have steadily climbed with the economic downturn.

“It’s heartbreaking when you get a call for help and all you can do is make a referral to an agency that you know is struggling to make ends meet,” said Kunkel. “There is a huge gap of people not getting served.”

Seventy-five percent of the calls to 2-1-1 in September came from people who have been laid off.

“One of the most important things we do is listen,” said Suarez. “We let callers know somebody is listening to their problems.”

But all of that listening can take an emotional toll, says Kim Vorias, who answers the phones five days a week. “I try to keep a level head, to stay calm. That can be hard when you are handling 300 or more calls a day. It’s really tough with financial assistance calls.”Many Manatee callers are referred to the Salvation Army of Bradenton.

Counting phone calls and walk-ins, 2,247 people sought help at the Bradenton Salvation Army the week of Oct. 13-17, said Maj. Robert Pfeffier.

“We get more 2-1-1 referrals than anyone else. Last week, we referred more than one-third to other agencies, but there were 637 who had needs no one could meet,” Pfeffier said.

“You do what you can with what you’ve got,” said Kunkel. “But when someone is in a crisis situation, that’s not the thing they want to hear.”

Anyone needing assistance should call 2-1-1 or 941-308-4357. Requests for help also can be made on the agency’s Web site at www.uw211manasota.net. The 2-1-1 help line is available 24 hours a day.

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049.